Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Catholic Church in Chile: Pablo Larraín's masterfully cringe-inducing THE CLUB opens

Here's a film that makes our current Catholic-scandal movie, Spotlight, look practically benign. THE CLUB, the new film from Chilean director/co-writer Pablo Larraín tackles priestly pedophilia in the kind of manner we have not seen previously: utterly raw, angry, take-no-prisoners. Unspooling in a small Chilean seacoast town in a home in which are housed several priests with, shall we say, bad reputations, along with a "nun" (maybe former nun) who takes care of them, from the outset the movie alerts us to the fact this little group has managed to do very well for itself. In fact, the film works quite nicely as a microcosm of The Catholic Church itself -- with all of its power and rewards, hypocrisy and denial offered up in full bloom.

The Club may be the most anti-Catholic movie I have ever seen, and yet its characters also seem very human and real (if pretty bizarre). What they do here, however, is shockingly awful, and the fact that it all works out for the "best" makes it seem even more so. Senor Larrain, shown at left, has given us a tale of Catholic guilt and non-retribution that stands with the best (or is it the worst?) of them. Although we come to understand to some extent the half dozen men, along with the woman who keeps them, as individuals, it is finally the group -- that Club of the title -- that we know best.

This is rather like the Church itself, don't you think? Where all is accomplished to keep the "group" -- the power -- together and going strong, no matter the "sacrifices" that must be made along the way. Here, as with all organized religion, the end justifies the means. Interlopers of any kind (there are three major ones in this movie) must be destroyed or co-opted. Maybe both simultaneously.

How all this is demonstrated by Larraín and his co-writers (Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos) involves everything from small-minded townspeople to greyhound racing, black-market babies to sexual child abuse (performed, of course, in the name of Jesus), military torture to simple blackmail. And all this is woven into the fabric of life experienced by our little beachfront club members.

The movie opens with a bout of that dog racing and then the introduction of a new "priest" into the current group, followed almost immediately by the introduction of the classic "victim" figure, a fellow named Sandokan (a fine Roberto Farías, above), who makes this figure one of the strongest and most original yet seen in the many films about priest pedophilia so far served up.

Then we have another newcomer to the group: an investigator sent from the Vatican to assess the group and decide what to do with them, since pushing defrocked priests off into far-away places and then forgetting about them has now come back to haunt the Church. How our investigator plies his trade and how he, too, is finally used and co-opted proves one of the films darkly comic highlights.

Watching these people play off of and bounce around each other makes for some of the more unsettling, unnerving scenes experienced in cinema over the past few years. Larraín is increasingly masterful at the kind of indirection that shows us how we are all perpetrators and victims. Does this let us off the hook? Hardly. Instead the filmmaker does here for the The Catholic Church what he has done earlier in his films regarding the Pinochet regime in Chile.

The performances are all as bizarre as the subject matter would indicate, and they work individually and together to make the movie as creepily memorable as it ought to be. Organized evil never dies. Particularly when it comes from organized religion.

The Club, from Music Box Films and running a mere 97 minutes, opens this Friday in New York City (at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema), and on Friday, February 12 in Los Angeles (at Landmark's NuArt) and in Southern Florida at the O Cinema Miami Beach, the Tower Theater Miami and the Silverspot in Naples, and then on February 19 here in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters. Click here -- and then click on THEATERS -- to see all currently scheduled playdates across the country.

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